Developer: Pandemic Studios
Release Date: January 10, 2005
Ever since the unbridled success of Grand Theft Auto III a few years ago, there's been a strong movement towards using more free-form environments in action games. Many a designer is trying to figure out how to meld shooting madly at things or chopping your foes into compost while still letting you explore at your own pace and poke around sprawling maps. Mercenaries takes that challenge, creating an entire country where, well, you can blow up stuff and shoot people however you really feel like.
The premise, as simple as it is, involves a fictional war raging in modern-day North Korea. General Park has overthrown his father's regime and is trying to form a nuclear superpower right under the noses of the free world. When he is discovered trafficking arms and munitions, the UN deploys a force to assist the South Koreans in defending themselves. At the same time, the Chinese Army is taking advantage of the situation to bring the North Koreans back into their grasp. And on the fifth side is the Russian Mafia, using the chaos to make a quick buck off everyone they can. And then, there's you. Tossed into the situation with a quick briefing, you're the ultimate devil's advocate, playing for whichever side you feel like at any given moment. A well designed PDA carries all kinds of relevant information, ranging from a very effective map, emails from various sources, and a website you'll learn to love – keep reading.
That's not to say you have no goals whatsoever. During your stay in Korea, you'll have one major task to accomplish: namely, the Deck of 52. Each card in the deck represents one of the upper members of the new Park Regime. As you wander about the landscape destroying and killing at will, intelligence will clue you into the locations of these folks. Capturing them, dead or alive (whichever suits you), gets you money. The entire thing is very light on overall plot, not unlike Grand Theft Auto, placing more emphasis on the gun battles raging all over the peninsula.
That, at the end of the day, is the basis of everything: violence. With an broad array of available weaponry ranging from simple machine guns and hand grenades to anti-aircraft rockets, recoilless cannons, and sniper rifles, you'll rain down bloody death on whichever side happens to be the one you've chosen to work against – each of the four sides has a variable opinion of you (except the North Koreans – they always hate you), ranging from shooting you on sight to supporting you in firefights against armies about which they normally wouldn't think twice. It's a visceral thrill running in guns blazing against a small contingent of troopers, spraying bullets all over the place.
After a few missions, you'll also unlock The Merchant of Menace, a Russian website featured in your PDA's system. Finding special items for each side and finishing missions will add things to The Merchant's listings, all available for purchase at any time. Boris, the operator, is more than willing to airlift in vehicles, drop you crates of supplies, or even hook you up with artillery fire or carpet bombers at a moment's notice, just as long as you can pay for all of it. And that's it: these are big, loud, violent fights, with huge explosions and destructible buildings. Some last for several minutes, with troopers streaming in from strategically placed bunkers and helicopters laying down crossfire. These are far better than anything offered by any GTA, even the most recent San Andreas.
What makes things as exceptional as they are is the wonderful control scheme. Users have complained for several years about the sloppy aiming system in the GTA games, but that's not remotely a problem here – everything is handled in traditional third-person shooter style using the dual analog sticks. Weapons management is easy as well, mostly due to limited inventory (two firearms and two grenade types). The action of choice is clearly labeled on screen, pickups are circled with large green circles, and your special inventory of things like C4 or air strikes are controlled via the directional pad. The designers were even nice enough to map The Merchant's website there, so you can buy things on the fly without wading through your PDA. That's not to say the PDA is complicated, being as entirely simple as everything else.
I know what you're thinking right now: "If the shooting controls are great, then the driving system must be lame." If you are, you're thinking wrong. The entire range of vehicles handles as smoothly as any other game I've dealt with; while nothing will surprise you, you'll certainly have no trouble getting anywhere on land. Some of the bigger vehicles like tanks use a different control scheme featuring both sticks to support the cannons onboard, which helicopters use a smooth system for handling steering. Any moving vehicle in the game can be hijacked, even helicopters, with the single press of a button – often, the strategy in gunfights will be to get to a vehicle before the enemy can and use it against them. Zooming through the wilderness and cities is fun, although a lot of vehicles don't have any strength against the gunfire you're going to run into.
No game is perfect, and I do have my minor quibbles against Mercenaries. To start, the game looks good enough, but it's nothing spectacular. Some troops and vehicles can only be identified at very close range even though the aiming reticle attempts to show "ally" or "enemy" on the fly, anyone in the "unfriendly" range is show as "enemy," and often allies and enemies mix in with each other. It's difficult at times to keep from shooting up the wrong people, or even nicking innocent bystanders and scoring the dreaded "collateral damage" penalty.
Nothing seems signature enough, especially from long range, to avoid hitting your friends. The music is entirely unnoticeable, and sound effects are nothing to write to your mother about. Vehicle physics can produce unusual effects, with cars doing flips through the air and rolling along for what feels like miles. There's also some oddness in damage generation – I had vehicles with nearly full "health" explode in a shower of debris at the first head-on impact (I will admit, though, that being propelled through the air away from the flaming wreckage of your car is a really beautiful effect). Helicopters can be far too difficult to take out of the picture, featuring massive amounts of armor and uncanny mobility.
But I say to all that, who cares? When you're emptying a clip of M4 ammo into a small squad of NK troops as a helicopter whips the air behind you and rockets zing over your shoulders, you won't mind what music is playing or if you're taking a little extra damage. This is the sort of game Jerry Bruckheimer would appreciate, full of bangs and booms, blood and carnage pouring out from every corner. This is an immaculate production, with the combination of heavy firepower and loosely structured gameplay. If you like Doom, Halo, Serious Sam or any other game that's designed around mass mayhem and flaming wreckage, you'll be perfectly at home. Pick this up and claim your spot on the playground of destruction.
Just warn before you call in the air strikes. That's an order, soldier.
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